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China’s R&D: Don’t Freak

by david_axe on April 4, 2006

Former Army Captain Matthew Tompkins spent four months in Iraq as a platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division, and another six at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Now, he’s a Henry Luce Scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Here’s his first post for Defense Tech. I’m looking forward to more.

china_astronaut.jpgChina is about to pass the U.S. in the development of defense and commercial technology. And they’re gonna take our lunch money, too.

Those are the conclusions China hawks
will draw, no doubt, from a new Office of Naval Research (ONR) report on Beijing’s science and technology. Posted by Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News, the report notes that:

* China’s moved to the forefront of S&T research in terms of journal articles published,
and

* China has more R&D investment focus on the hard science and engineering fields most relevant to “defense and commercial activities” than the US or any other competitor

These highlights are worrisome if youre already looking over your shoulder at China. But this isnt Chinas Sputnik, and heres why: First, a big quantity of research doesn’t mean a lot of quality research and second, China’s current investment is only establishing the R&D foundation other nations built decades ago.

Research articles in China have an unfortunate and widely acknowledged difficulty with “borrowing” or restating material, and even outright plagiarism. Its a big enough problem that its even been discussed by media on the mainland, and by the government and a problem has to be pretty egregious for that to happen. (Remember SARS? In China you wouldnt)

This has less to do with dishonesty than with the cultural and social realities of China. For academics and established researchers, the “publish or perish” adage common in Western institutions is taken to its logical extreme: quantifiable measures of accomplishment become necessary in a nation of 1.4 billion. For students and aspiring researchers, Chinas cultural heritage is also an important factor: locating (and repeating) someone elses good work and effective analysis can be considered solid academic work particularly when that someone is older and wiser. (Its a common enough practice in China that advisors are encouraged to explain Western thoughts towards plagiarism to Chinese students studying abroad.)

Chinese government and academic officials are currently working to shift towards more western ideas of original work vs. plagiarism, but this problem is almost certainly a factor in the large quantity of articles published. The ONR paper even seems to bear this out: articles where a Chinese author had a non-Chinese co-author (and were thus less likely to rely on “borrowed” work) tended to be cited more frequently than purely Chinese work.

The other alarm bell is about Chinas primary focus of R&D investment in areas applicable to defense and commerce, compared to Americas and other nations. Conclusions here can be misleading: the report remains focused on the number of research articles, and there is plenty of defense-related research that occurs without published articles, particularly in the US where corporate (and governmental) espionage is of greater concern.

Its also important to remember that China is still very much in the early stages of establishing an academic R&D base that other nations have had for decades. Much of what theyre spending now is money on foundations that most western countries laid 50 years ago and neighbors like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea established during in the 70s and 80s.

Theres no doubt that Chinas development is advancing quickly, and research with very real applications is surely being done. Remember, too, that an academic system built on emulating
others exceptional work is what makes many Chinese labs and corporations so effective at reverse engineering. But anyone reading the ONR report as a cause for concern should look to the ultimate conclusion:

“China has expanded its documented research output dramatically in the last decade.

However, its citation performance is competitive with that of other developing nations but
not competitive with that of the developed nations.”

Matthew Tompkins

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

pedestrian April 4, 2006 at 10:42 am

What’s the conclusion? More budget for the DoD to spend on R&D, and have a strong military identical of the Cold War era to fight another Cold War with China?

Reply

JQP April 4, 2006 at 11:24 am

Is an economic war on the horizon? If so do you react by building more and better weapons or do you try to change the underlying economic conditions so a trade war or worse is averted?
“China is a major funder of US debt, holding about 260bn (149bn) in US Treasury bonds – second only to Japan.
Any reduction in China’s dollar assets could hit the US economy.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4875606.stm

Reply

elizzar April 4, 2006 at 11:27 am

Hi all, this seems to be consistent with my own experiences. i was at a conference last year, for instance, where my supervisor found an abstract from a chinese group that reproduced her own work from several years previously, almost down to the same graphs, figures etc, and several journal articles from chinese researchers in my field bear striking ‘similarities’ to previous works by western groups. imitation is the best complement i guess! i think the mentality of some hawks, of always having a threat to justify the military budget etc, it has to stop. terrorists today, chinese tomorrow … who’s next on the emergent threat merry-go-round …

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pedestrian April 4, 2006 at 12:10 pm

>”China is a major funder of US debt, holding about 260bn (149bn) in US Treasury bonds – >second only to Japan.
>Any reduction in China’s dollar assets could hit the US economy.”
Do you mean US is a dog and a puppet of China?

Reply

Matthew Tompkins April 4, 2006 at 1:02 pm

America is obviously neither the dog nor puppet to China’s master. We’ve actually got mutual economic weaknesses: China holds so much of our debt, but they’re dependent on our Foreign Direct Investment and us purchasing consumer goods produced here to sustain their development — and they’ve staked the stability of the government on that development continuing. While I wouldn’t have necessarily advocated getting in this position vis-a-vis China, since we’re in it anyway it’s a bit of a mixed blessing; It’s like economic Mutually Assured Destruction: the more power each side has to destroy the other’s economic well-being, the more it’s in each side’s interest to maintain a stable relationship and stop painting each other as inevitable enemies.
As for what to do with the Pentagon’s R&D budget, that’s why I made the point of arguing that this report does NOT indicate a Chinese Sputnik. The key for now is to keep an eye out for the rhetoric – it’ll only be a matter of time before a member of the administration or an eager candidate refers to China surpassing us in R&D. When those comments find their way into the echo-chamber that is US-China relations, myth has a way of forcing reality. As for the crossroads of China policy, R&D and the Pentagon’s budget (and the unavoidable discussion of the QDR and ’06 Nat Security Strategy), I think that’s the subject of a post all on its own…

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Moose April 4, 2006 at 2:30 pm

The problem with the status quo is that it will change, and those who don’t change are changed. Sooner or later one of many issues (Iran, Taiwain, Spratlys, a market crash in China, various -stan elections) is going to come to a head. Someone will make a move, there will have to be a response, and both sides will be faced with the situation of economic reprisals being as lethal as military ones. So either inaction will rule, or both sides will dive fully into antagonism.
This doesn’t mean I advocate open agression toward China, or some kid of ultra-nationalism. But I recognize that the efforts of China to artificially lever themselves into a strong-superpower economic and political position while retaining their overwieght hard-line position IS something to worry about.

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Jason April 11, 2006 at 1:33 pm

I can’t wait until we have a new super power. Maybe the communists won’t be as big of jack asses as the US.

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George David June 14, 2007 at 6:21 pm

“China holds so much of our debt, but they’re dependent on our Foreign Direct Investment”
Please check the data before making these statement. China’s growth started from early 80s and 90% of foreign direct investment were from Taiwan, Hongkong and overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. Starting from Mid 90s, US and western countries started to pour in money after seeing the huge returns from those made the investment. But still today, Taiwan and Hong Kong still makes up more than 60% of the FDI… and China today has already established the industry base that can make almost everything, now it actually has enough money and what it needs right now is how to expand the prosperity to the inner land and boost domestic consumption…

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